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How do surfers stay on the board and other Olympics questions - answered!

Answering all your most-Googled questions about the new Olympic sport.

There’s something almost mythical about surfing, the superhuman sport in which a mere human stands on a board to smoothly ride a soaring wave of water.

If you’re not a pro like Kelly Slater, even clambering to the top of the board, much less trying to balance on it, feels like scaling Everest. But on moving water. And this year, surfing makes its Olympics debut at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, with American Carissa Moore the favorite to win gold.

But here’s the thing: You can’t control Mother Nature, as we well know. And given that surfers compete in open water, not wave pools, there’s a lot of moving parts to make sure that the event goes smoothly, without too many wipeouts. The competition will feature 20 men and 20 women, who compete in groups of four or five before going into a one-on-one bracket for medaling. And if you thought gymnastics judging is complex (and subjective), get ready for surfing: These athletes are judged on speed, flow, and tricks, among other factors.

To figure out what’s what and who’s who at the Olympics, still officially called the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, we consulted Jessi Miley-Dyer, the SVP of tours and the head of competition at the World Surf League, and a former professional surfer herself.

How will athletes surf in the Olympics?

The competitions will be held at Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba, which is about 40 minutes outside Tokyo. No recreational surfers (translation: Non-Olympic competitors) will be allowed in the water during the event. The competition is slated to take place over parts of four days during an eight-day window, with exact timing determined by weather conditions. Each surfer gets 30 minutes per heat.

Jeep Surf Ranch Pro presented by Adobe
Carissa Moore competing at the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro presented by Adobe on June 20, 2021 in Lemoore, California.Pat Nolan / World Surf League via Getty Imag

Who are the Team USA athletes to watch?

The Americans are fielding a pretty stellar team of four, made up of Kolohe Andino, Carissa Moore, Caroline Marks, and John John Florence. But pay special attention to Hawaii native Moore, who hails from Honolulu. At 16, she became the youngest champion at a Triple Crown of Surfing event. And at 18, she became the youngest surfer, male or female, to win a surfing world title. Fun fact: She attended Punahou High, also the alma mater of President Barack Obama.

Why do surfers wear wetsuits?

Because water is cold and slippery. Make that, very very cold. “Wetsuits are garments worn to provide warmth in the water or to provide a layer of protection against rashes, chafing, or sunburns. Surfers typically wear wetsuits to keep warm, but wetsuits vary in thickness depending on the use and needs of the surfers,” says Miley-Dyer.

Why do surfers wax their boards?

For the same reason that gymnasts chalk their hands: To get better grip and traction. “Surfboard wax provides a layer of grip on the surfboard deck (the top of the surfboard) to prevent the surfer from slipping off of the board when riding a wave or paddling. Surfers wax their boards to apply this layer of grip on their surfboards,” says Miley-Dyer.

Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic presented by Corona
John John Florence competes in the Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic in Narrabeen, Australia.Matt Dunbar / World Surf League via Getty Imag

How do surfers stay on the board?

This is where your core muscles come into play. It’s why planks exist. “Surfers use balance, strength, coordination, and momentum to stay, pop up, and stand on their surfboards,” says Miley-Dyer.

How is surfing judged at the Olympics?

Welp, it’s complicated. But then again, so is everything at the Olympics, these in particular. “Judges evaluate the conditions and set a judging criteria for the day. Scoring is dependent on the maneuvers performed on a wave based on the criteria,” says says Miley-Dyer.

Maneuvers: Competitors are scored based on maneuvers completed on a wave. Fundamental surf maneuvers include:

  • Turns: When the surfboard carves into the wave.
  • Barrels: When a surfer rides inside the curl or tube of a wave and exits without falling.
  • Airs: When a surfer rises above the top of a wave and lands back on their surfboard.

Judges analyze the following elements when scoring waves:

  • Speed, power and flow.
  • Commitment and degree of difficulty.
  • Innovative and progressive maneuvers.
  • Combination of major maneuvers.
  • Variety of maneuvers.

Scoring: Based on the judging criteria, the judging panel applies a score from 0.0 - 10 for each wave surfed.

  • 0.0 — 1.9 Poor
  • 2.0 — 4.9 Fair
  • 5.0 — 6.4 Good
  • 6.5 — 7.9 Very Good
  • 8.0 — 10.0 Excellent

What's the hardest thing about surfing?

As spectators, let’s sum it up in one word: Everything. “Surfing’s difficulty will depend on the surfer you speak with and their skill level, as every surfer has their own unique experience. Aerials, barrels, and big turns are noted as some of the most challenging surf maneuvers, which are also often scored highly when the maneuvers meet the judging criteria in professional surfing,” says Miley-Dyer.

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